by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Sixty four years ago this week, in Nuremberg, the United States and its allies put the perpetrators of genocide and world war on trial. Sadly, the U.S. today is permitting the world’s most prominent perpetrator of genocide to walk free.
For years, the Sudanese government has sponsored Arab militias, known as Janjaweed, that have been slaughtering the non-Arab tribes of Sudan’s Darfur region. Hundreds of thousands have been massacred. Thousands of villages have been burned down, leaving more than one million civilians homeless. There have been mass rapes and other atrocities.
Earlier this year, Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court for “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” for “intentionally directing attacks against an important part of the civilian population of Darfur, Sudan, murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing, and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians, and pillaging their property.”
Bashir, in response, has desperately sought countries that would permit him to visit without being arrested. And he has found some. In March, he visited Eritrea, Egypt, Libya, and Qatar, where he took part in the Doha Arab Summit. The following month, he was welcomed in Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. In June, it was Zimbabwe, and in July he visited Egypt a second time.
There was a brief bump in the road this summer, however, when Uganda announced that Bashir might be arrested if he attempted to participate in the “Smart Partnership” conference in Kampala. It was the first attempt to isolate Bashir and treat him like the pariah he is. And it worked: Bashir decided to stay home.
In September, Bashir was invited by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to take part in a summit in Caracas. There was more than a little irony that Chavez recently denounced Israel’s “genocidal government” and then, in almost the same breath, started rolling out the red carpet for a real perpetrator of genocide.
Turkey invited Bashir to a conference in November. Like Chavez, the Turkish government promised it would not arrest him. Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan, apparently thinking that nobody remembers what the Turks did to the Armenians, was quoted as saying of Bashir, “No Muslim could perpetrate a genocide.”
But the Butcher of Darfur did not travel to either Venezuela or Turkey. Evidently he feared that traveling to South America, or so close to Europe, might tempt the U.S. or others to try to arrest him.
Unfortunately Bashir’s fears were probably not well-founded. Neither the United States nor any European nation has given any serious indication of a willingness to arrest him.
It’s true that during last year’s presidential campaign, Barack Obama spoke strongly of the need for action on Darfur. But President Obama’s actual record in that regard is another story.
During the campaign, candidate Obama criticized the Bush administration for its halfhearted response to Darfur. Obama urged stronger steps, “real pressure” such as tougher sanctions and the imposition of a No Fly Zone over the region. “There must be real pressure placed on the Sudanese government” to stop the Darfur genocide, Obama asserted. “We know from past experience that it will take a great deal to get them to do to the right thing.”
If such actions had been taken by the Obama administration and failed to produce the desired results, it would be reasonable for U.S. policymakers to seek an alternative approach. But President Obama never tried ramping up the pressure. Nor has the administration taken action to bring about the arrest of Bashir during his many travels.
Instead of the “real pressure” that he once demanded, President Obama last month announced a new Sudan policy based on the concept that, as the White House put it, “we must engage with those with whom we disagree.”
Engaging with regimes with whom the United States disagrees makes sense. But genocide is not a “disagreement.”
Legal scholar and human rights activist Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” in 1944, and campaigned for international action against it, precisely because genocide is not comparable to ordinary disagreements between nations or ordinary warfare between armies. A systematic attempt to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical [sic], racial or religious group” is a uniquely evil crime. It merits a uniquely forceful response from the United States and the international community.
A no-fly zone, stronger international sanctions, and pressure on Sudan’s allies –such as Russia, China, and the Arab League– would be important first steps. But the most effective way to help end the Darfur genocide and deter future would-be perpetrators of genocide would be to capture the world’s most prominent perpetrator of genocide and bring him to a Nuremberg tribunal of his own.